Written by Rich Forestano Saturday, 31 August 2013 00:00
A local doctor was out in front at a rally on Tuesday, Aug. 20, supporting advocates fighting to change a very old law in New York State: the age to prosecute youngsters as adults.
Currently, among U.S. states, only New York and North Carolina prosecute children as adults starting at 16 years old. The Raise The Age Campaign, an advocacy group calling on the state to change the age, has garnered support from local officials to press Governor Andrew Cuomo to take action.
Dr. Ronald Feinstein, a pediatrician from the American Academy of Pediatrics and Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, has worked with local and national authorities to help at-risk youth. Feinstein, a native Long Islander, was the medical director of the juvenile health system in Louisiana, before returning to New York in 2009. He has also worked with at-risk youth in Alabama.
While conventional wisdom considers one an adult when one hits the 17- or 18-year mark, Feinstein feels additional factors come into play.
“We really can’t put chronological ages on [adulthood],” he said. “I can’t tell you that a 17-year-old is an adult or a 23-year-old is an adult. It depends so much on their physical, cognitive, social growth and development. It’s important to be extremely careful to limiting those ages, 16 and 17, saying ‘everybody is an adult.’”
Feinstein plans to campaign with Raise The Age throughout the state, continuing the work he began in Louisiana.
“I personally experienced the rehabilitative programming of education and work experience that occurs within the juvenile justice system, [in Louisiana]” he said. “It’s similar to what I’m dealing with in the pediatric age group. I can’t say how much I support the focus on rehabilitation instead of a punitive measure that leads to recidivism.”
According to Raise The Age, the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy reports some 50,000 youths ages 16 and 17 are arrested and tried as adults in criminal court each year—the vast majority for minor crimes (74.4 percent are misdemeanors).
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice supports the concept broadly according to a spokesperson, as long as it follows the legislative process. She spoke Tuesday on the law’s effects on developing youth.
“The human, financial and public safety cost of this archaic system are staggering,” said Rice. “I am looking forward to working with incredibly diverse coalition of people and advocates behind us to do something about it.”
A study from the National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems says that around 80 percent of youth released from adult prisons re-offend, and they are more likely to commit more serious crimes.
“Each year, thousands of New York teens are arrested and prosecuted and punished as adults they have yet to become,” Rice said. “Regardless of the offense, they are automatically introduced to an adult justice system that only increases the likelihood of their one-day re-offending.”
Angelo Pinto, a Raise The Age Campaign organizer from the Correctional Association of New York, said children as young as 13 can be convicted of certain crimes as adults in the state. He’s focused on the process of a young mind witnessing the incarceration process and how it possibly damages them emotionally.
“What [the age law] means in New York State is that young children can be housed in adult jails,” said Pinto. “The harsh realities of what happens to youths that are housed in adult jails and facilities are mind-boggling. Physical violence, suicide or sexual violence and of course the trauma of going through incarceration.”
If a child must be incarcerated, New Hyde Park’s Feinstein says, “it’s much more important to be involved in permanent rehabilitation.”